Israel gears up for mass strike over government's judicial reforms

Critics say Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's proposed changes will weaken the rule of law and democracy

Israeli protesters attend a rally in central Tel Aviv. AFP
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Thousands of Israelis are expected to go on strike on Monday in a protest against legislation that will affect the powers of the country’s Supreme Court.

The industrial action called by protest leaders poses one of the biggest challenges yet for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A number of high-profile civil society organisations and companies have said they plan to take part amid growing anger over the proposed judicial reforms.

The reforms proposed by Mr Netanyahu's coalition government, the most right-wing in Israel's history, include an “override clause” that would allow parliament to re-legislate by simple parliamentary majority any laws that the Supreme Court strikes down.

Other reforms include giving the government control over the selection of judges, and allowing ministers to select their own legal advisers, ending a previous arrangement whereby such counsel would come from the Justice Ministry.

Monday’s industrial action will coincide with the first round of voting on the proposals.

Opponents of the reforms have held six consecutive weekend protests across the country that have drawn tens of thousands. For the first time, one was held in the West Bank settlement of Efrat on Saturday. The organisers said more than 200,000 people turned up.

Monday’s strike call is expected to draw a response from across Israeli society, including workers from the country’s vital tech sector, military reservists and medical staff.

Francine, a doctor participating in a protest outside the Jerusalem residence of President Isaac Herzog on Saturday, said she planned to join the strike. “I don't have much to say, we simply need to do this,” she told The National.

Sivan, a postgraduate student in public policy, said she backed the move: “The will of the people is not dismantling democracy. We have to remember this government barely has a majority in the Knesset.”

According to a poll released on Friday by Israel's Channel 12, only one in four Israelis support the proposed legislation. It also found significant backing for Monday's planned strike.

Outside Israel, world leaders, economists and business people have also voiced concerns over the reforms put forward by Mr Netanyahu and Justice Minister Yariv Levin.

French President Emmanuel Macron brought up the issue when he hosted Mr Netanyahu at the beginning of the month, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken hinted at US worry over the plans during a recent visit to the region.

On Saturday, US President Joe Biden called for consensus in his first comments on the matter.

“The genius of American democracy and Israeli democracy is that they are both built on strong institutions, on checks and balances, on an independent judiciary,” Mr Biden said.

“Building consensus for fundamental changes is really important to ensure that the people buy into them so they can be sustained.”

On Wednesday, 56 prominent economists issued an open letter condemning the proposals, which they said would “weaken the rule of law and thereby move Israel in the direction of Hungary and Poland”.

“A strong and independent judiciary is a critical part of a system of checks and balances. Undermining it would be detrimental not only to democracy but also to economic prosperity and growth,” they said.

Former World Bank chief economist Anne Krueger, one of the signatories, told The National: “It’s established throughout the world that an independent judiciary is essential to a well functioning body politic.

“One of the things authoritarian governments first rush to do is prevent sources of independent commentary.”

Alan Auerbach, a professor of economics at University of California, Berkeley, who also signed the letter, told The National that “countries that erode the rule of law are not treated well by the world economy”.

“It sends a bad economic signal that a government led by a prime minister who is already under indictment and having problems with the legal system would pursue such reforms,” he said, referring to continuing corruption cases against Mr Netanyahu.

Knesset member Simcha Rothman, who drafted the proposed reforms, defended them in a Times of Israel podcast released on Friday.

“In the Israeli context [the reforms] might be huge. But when I talk to my [colleagues] across the ocean, they say ‘you’re just stating the obvious’,” he said.

The government says the measures will provide necessary restraint of the Supreme Court, which it believes has too much power.

Updated: February 12, 2023, 10:38 AM